Friday, 24 June 2016

Epicurean Polytheism

Fresco from the Villa di Livia. Source: Lo Dolce Lume
Oftentimes the philosophy of Epicurus and his followers (most notably the Roman Lucretius), is cited as an important founding stone in the story of atheism.* This is despite the fact that Epicureanism does not deny the existence of the Gods, and in fact repeatedly affirms their existence. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus wrote that the first principle of his philosophy is that:
“the Gods exist … but they are not as the majority think them to be … For the assertions of the many [in 4th/3rd century BCE Athens] concerning the Gods are conceptions grounded … in false assumptions [O’Connor (trans), The Essential Epicurus, Prometheus Books at 62-63].”
In the same letter Epicurus goes on to argue that the best kind of man “keeps a reverent opinion about the Gods, and is altogether fearless of death and has reasoned out the end of nature” (ibid at 67). What is radical, and must have been profoundly radical in the ancient world, is the affirmation in the Principle Doctrines of Epicurus that a God is “free from trouble nor does it cause trouble for anyone else; therefore it is not constrained either by anger or by favour” (ibid at 69). However this is not to say that worship of the Gods is therefore useless, for it is known that Epicurus and his followers in fact did worship the Gods, but not in a greedy, grasping way, but rather as an act of reverence for beings who exhibit “the ultimate beatitude” (Urmson & Ree (Ed), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, Routledge at 93). The hope and belief was that by doing so we can become Gods ourselves, for to live according to Epicureanism is to “live as a God among men” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus).

Lucretius divinised the founder of Epicureanism, and expressed his own desire for apotheosis in this lifetime when he wrote:
“You [Epicurus], glory of the Greeks, I follow you … love drives me to yearn to copy you … You, father, have revealed the truth … once your reason, born of mind divine, starts to proclaim the nature of the world, the terrors of the mind flee all away, the walls of heaven open, and through the void immeasurable, the truth of things I see. The Gods appear now and their quiet abodes which no winds ever shake, nor any rain falls on them from dark clouds, nor ever snow with bitter frost … but always ever cloudless air enfolds and smiles on them with bounteous light. There nature everything supplies, and there through all the length of ages nothing comes to vex the tranquil tenor of their minds [Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Oxford World’s Classics at 70].”
To become a God, according to the Epicurean view, is to live in this moment, which is the only moment we have,** like a God. How does a God live? Free from superstition, fear and sorrow, pure in mind, rational, modest, frugal, clean, taking pleasure in simple things, such as friendship, gardens and plain food.
“He therefore who has mastered all these vices [including lust, fear, pride, filth, wantonness, luxury and sloth] and cast them from the mind by words, not arms, will it not then be right to find him worthy of the Gods? Especially since in words from heaven inspired [Epicurus] used to teach about the Gods themselves, and all the nature of the world make plain [Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe at 138]”. 
Accusations of Atheism
Fresco of Mars from Pompeii. Source:
So why is Epicureanism so often associated with atheism? These days I suspect it is simply a case of some atheists seeking to garner prestige and legitimacy for their movement by appropriating an ancient philosophy (“look, those awesome Greeks and Romans were atheists too!”), but the charge of atheism does go back to the ancient world. The accusation, which was certainly intended as a slur, may have initially been kicked off by some disgruntled members of that other very popular school of philosophy in the Roman age – Stoicism (Martin (Ed), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press at 19). If not them, certainly we know that Christians, starting with Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd/3rd century CE, were quick to deflect damaging charges of atheism away from themselves – many pious Romans regarded Christians as atheists – and instead onto Epicureans. The mud stuck.
“The hostility of [other] Pagan [philosophies] and Christian rivals combined, in effect, to defeat Epicureanism and to cast it for a time from the Western intellectual tradition. St Augustine could boast in the fifth century AD that ‘its ashes are so cold that not a single spark can be struck from them’ [Slattery, Reclaiming Epicurus, Penguin at 18].”
The teachings which gave rise to accusations of atheism include those which state that it “is useless to ask the Gods for what one is capable of obtaining for oneself” (Epicurus at 83) – which is to negate the value of praying to the Gods for worldly favours and prioritise the value of human agency in shaping our own destinies. Epicureans also argue that the Gods do not, in any case, intervene in everyday human affairs for:
“… perfect peace Gods by their very nature must of necessity enjoy, and immortal life, far separate, far removed from our affairs. For free from every sorrow, every danger, strong in their own powers, needing naught from us, they are not won by gifts nor touched by anger … nature is free, no slave to masters proud … nature by herself all things performs by her own will without the aid of Gods … who in their tranquil peace live ever quiet in a life serene [Lucretius at 54 and 67].”
If accepted as true, these teachings obviate fear of the Gods – which is the whole point, for the Epicurean argues that “fear of the Gods oppresses mortals without cause” (Lucretius at 97); it is spiritual poison. 
“… the chief disturbance in the minds of humankind arises when they think that these heavenly bodies are blessed and immortal but have at the same time wills, actions, and motives that are opposed to these divine attributes; and when they are constantly expecting and fearing some everlasting pain, as happens in myths … peace of mind means being released from all this [Epicurus at 41].”
Epicurean philosophy argues that to fear the Gods as potentially grudging and wrathful is both to dishonour them and degrade one’s own spiritual condition.
“Unless you spew these notions from your mind and banish far away from you all thoughts unworthy of the Gods and alien to their peace, these holy powers, objects of your insults, will often do you mischief. Not because the majesty of the eternal Gods can suffer injury, so that in wrath they seek to wreak revenge. No. You yourself will picture those quiet beings in their untroubled peace as tossed by violent waves of wrath, and be unable to come before their shrines with quiet mind; and those sweet images which to men’s hearts are borne from holy bodies, messengers of form divine, these images no more will come to you, your heart at peace and tranquil [Lucretius at 181].”
To call all of this atheism is to miss the point of the Epicurean message – the point is that the fact that Gods exist means that it is possible to live a transcendent life, as a God. If belief in the Gods is divorced from Epicurean teachings then so too is the possibility of spiritual transcendence. At that point Epicureanism becomes a hollow philosophy, nothing more than an intellectual musing. By establishing that the Gods by their very nature are inherently happy and tranquil is to elevate reverence for them as beings who have attained the highest life state that it is possible to reach – this conception of the divine is somewhat similar to the Christian Saint and the Buddhist Bodhisattva, for every person can potentially reach the ranks of Sainthood or Buddhahood (or the Godhood of Epicureanism); this high spiritual state is not over and above us but life at its most supreme – it is accessible to us, it is what we can attain.

Problems with Epicureanism
Roman fresco in Arles. Source:
It seems to me that to some extent Epicureanism was reacting against (while attempting to cure) a world where superstition was widespread – it was so prevalent that Lucretius felt the need to point out why it was impossible for centaurs and chimera to exist (Lucretius at 162). Dread of divine vengeance, both in this life and the next was especially common, and thus it was strongly dealt with in Epicurean philosophy:
“… all those things, for sure, which fables tell exist deep down in Acheron [a river of woe in Hades/Hell], exist for us in this our life. No Tantalus [a man thought to have been harshly punished by the Gods in the afterlife] unhappy wretch fears the great rock that hangs in the air above him, frozen with vain terror. No it is in this life that the fear of the Gods oppresses mortals without cause … Cerberus and the Furies dwell in that land where daylight never comes, they say, and Tartarus flames belching out; and none of these exist, nor ever can. But in this life there is fear of punishment for evil deeds, fear no less terrible than the deeds themselves … and even if … [from physical punishment people are] spared the guilty conscience filled with foreboding applies the goad and scorches itself with whips, seeing no end to all these miseries, no final limit to its punishment, and fears that after death there’s worse to come. So fools make for themselves a Hell on earth [Lucretius at 96-98, see also 93].” 
In seeking to liberate people from superstition and disabling fears it may be that Epicureans went a little too far the other way – the common view in the ancient world was that everything was controlled by the Gods, so the Epicureans argued in reverse that the Gods controlled nothing. I think of this as perhaps being like a weight trying to balance the scales of reason (my own view is that it is most likely that the Gods control some things but not all things). 

There is much to admire in Epicureanism but one thing in particular that does not sit easy with me is the denuding of nature of divine force. It is obvious that even committed Epicureans were conflicted about this – Lucretius himself argues against it in the first 40 lines of On the Nature of the Universe where he praises Venus effusively as the mother of men and Gods and the mover of all creation. Even while he proclaims the Epicurean notion that nature is not controlled by Gods he often erupts into praise for the Gods as the agents of nature, for example:
“Spring comes, and Venus, and Venus’ harbinger winged Cupid runs in front, in Zephyr’s steps, and mother Flora strews the path before them with choicest scents and colours everywhere. Next follows parching heat and hand in hand Ceres his dusty friend, and Aquilo [a God of wind] that blows in summertime across the sea; next autumn comes and Bacchus’ revel rout ... [Lucretius at 158].”
Another aspect of Epicureanism that I am uneasy about is the notion that prayers to the Gods fall on deaf ears. This is taking things too far for me, I do not see why a supremely happy being (a God) would necessarily take no interest in human affairs – is not compassion a virtue that befits a God? We also know that in some instances Epicurean physical theory was false, for example, Lucretius misjudged the size of the sun and the moon, arguing that they are “no larger than it appears to our eyes as we see it” (Lucretius at 153). 

Thus, taking on an attitude of Roman syncretism, I think I will take what I like from Epicureanism (which is a great deal) and leave behind that which does not resonate. I want to leave off with this wonderful tribute to Epicurean philosophy, which emphasises the possibilities it opens for us in our own times, by Luke Slattery:
“If Epicurean ideals were actively at work in our world they would service to moderate our mania for more gadgets and consumer goods, cool the culture of insatiability, reconnect us to community and rephrase our conversation about happiness. The acquisitive impulse would be checked by a deeper sensitivity to nature. We might not work so hard. We would prize relaxation over acquisition. For, as the Epicurean reminds us, true pleasure – such as the pleasure of friendship and the enjoyment of simple things  is easily attained [Slattery, Reclaiming Epicurus, Penguin at 77].

* See, for example, Minois & Weiss, The Atheist's Bible, University of Chicago Press at 11; Slattery, Reclaiming Epicurus, Penguin at 17 and 37 and

** For “… time doth change the nature of the world; one state of things must pass into another; nothing remains the same. All things move on. All things does nature turn, transform and change. One thing decays … another grows …” (Lucretius at 160).

Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Oxford World’s Classics
Martin (Ed), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press
O’Connor (trans), The Essential Epicurus, Prometheus Books
Slattery, Reclaiming Epicurus, Penguin
Urmson & Ree (Ed), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, Routledge

Excellent 5:24 minute introduction to Epicureanism

Written by M. Sentia Figula.


  1. The upcoming issue (Summer 2016) of Walking the Worlds will be featuring a major article on Epicurean polytheism. Here's the abstract:

    Epicureans have been branded atheists since antiquity, but although they might have held unorthodox beliefs about divinity, they did nevertheless believe in gods, however unorthodox their beliefs about them were.

    They did not believe in the Olympians that Hesiod and Homer had depicted, but anthropomorphic yet bizarre gods: although these were compounds of atoms, they were immortal, unlike any other compound in the Epicurean universe, and there was quite possibly an infinite host of such deities, all alike and all nameless.

    These gods were not considered figments of the imagination by the Epicureans, but as real, living entities that actually existed, remotely, somewhere out there in the cosmos, doing very little aside from maintaining their supremely peaceful, painless, and tranquil dispositions. And these gods needed to be considered real in order to be genuine, ethical models for mankind to follow, which was their main function within the Epicurean world-view. The atoms of these gods, like everything in existence, were held to be perpetually in motion, constantly being emitted from their bodies as images that then travelled directly to the minds of mankind and thereby presented a true depiction of divinity, of peacefulness, and above all, of happiness, which would then be examples for individual Epicureans to follow on their individual journeys towards ἀταραξία, tranquility.

    In case you're interested, you can order the issue here:

    1. Fantastic - I'm so happy to see Epicureanism polytheism is being championed:)

  2. This was a fascinating article I really enjoyed it a lot :). Thank you for always writing about the Roman Gods and inspiring others to learn more about the Gods.

    1. Thank you so much for your very encouraging comment:)!

    2. You present the subject well and argue not without reason. However, as a traditional Hellenic polytheist, I may shock you in stating boldly that all Greek philosophers, from Thales down to Proclus, were not only unorthodox in their views of the Gods, but also subversive of the Hellenic religion. They all opposed the common customs and distinct laws of their cities, and believed that the Hellenic religion (with all its ritual practices) was useless, and that philosophy (the love of wisdom) as an intellectual "religion". Greek philosophers were never properly polytheists, but rather monists, monotheists, agnostics or atheists. They may have declared otherwise, as you show with Epicurus, but a penetrating eye will perceive that this was done for the sake of public convenience to avoid the dangerous charge of impiety which banished Protagoras, proscribed Diagoras, and condemned Socrates to death (all in Athens, by the way, where both Zeno and Epicurus also established their schools). Although Epicurus opposed the teachings of Zeno of Citium in regard to virtue and the highest good, their differences were really superficial; both opposed the erection of temples, the performance of ritual sacrifice, the maintenance of common laws, and other religious points. Above all, they were both (like Socrates and Plato before, from whom they were inspired) moral absolutists and universalists who opposed the moral relativism and city-states of the Greeks. I can argue (not here, but in a future post in my site: that it was Greek philosophy which actually paved the way for the destructive monotheism of Christianity to conquer the Hellenistic Greeks, as well as the Roman Empire itself.

    3. I have suspected the truth of your last sentence for at least a couple of years now, but as I am not an expert on the huge topic of Hellenic philosophy it is a subject I dare not explore fully, so while I cannot say with certainty that I agree with you I tend to think you are right. I do know that monist philosophies were very popular with the educated elites of ancient Greece and Rome and it may be that the less refined monotheism that later swept the empire (ie, Christianity) was partly a case of the lower classes adopting and adapting something already made fashionable by those further up the social hierarchy. Hence it seems that possibly polytheism quite literally became unfashionable in the late Roman empire.

      Nice website by the way:)