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Lucretius: Proving That The Standard Definition of Gods Is Wrong By Appealing to the True Epicurean Gods

As we parse true and false definitions of “god” in the Epicurean context, there is a very explicit section near the end of Book 2 of “On The Nature of Things” to consider. Here, Lucretius calls Epicurean physics (eternal and infinite universe) to the task of overthrowing the standard definition of universe-creating supernatural gods. He then applies another physics principle (nature never creates only one single thing of a kind) to establish that the universe as a whole is teeming with life. Having set the context that there are boundless life forms in the boundless universe, Lucretius then sums up his argument that supernatural gods do *not* exist by appealing to the calm and undisturbed nature of the *true* Epicurean gods which *do* exist. Here are three different translations for comparison:


Yet how little, you know, wearied as all are to satiety with seeing, any one now cares to look up into heaven’s glittering quarters! Cease therefore to be dismayed by the mere novelty and so to reject reason from your mind with loathing: weigh the questions rather with keen judgment and if they seem to you to be true, surrender, or if they are a falsehood, gird yourself to the encounter.

For since the sum of space is unlimited outside beyond these walls of the world, the mind seeks to apprehend what there is yonder there, to which the spirit ever yearns to look forward, and to which the mind’s emission reaches in free and unembarrassed flight. In the first place we see that round in all directions, about above and underneath, throughout the universe there is no bound, as I have shown and as the thing of itself proclaims with loud voice and as clearly shines out in the nature of bottomless space. In no wise then can it be deemed probable, when space yawns illimitable towards all points and seeds in number numberless and sum unfathomable fly about in manifold ways driven on in ceaseless motion, that this single earth and heaven have been brought into being, that those bodies of matter so many in number do nothing outside them; the more so that this world has been made by nature, just as the seeds of things have chanced spontaneously to clash, after being brought together in manifold wise without purpose, without foresight, without result, and at last have filtered through such seeds as, suddenly thrown together, were fitted to become on each occasion the rudiments of great things, of earth sea and heaven and the race of living things. Wherefore again and again I say you must admit that there are elsewhere other combinations of matter like to this with ether holds in its greedy grasp.

Again when much matter is at hand, when room is there and there is no thing, no cause to hinder, things sure enough must go on and be completed. Well, then, if on the one hand there is so great a store of seeds as the whole life of living creatures cannot reckon up, and if the same force and nature abide in them and have the power to throw the seeds of things together into their several places in the same way as they are thrown together into our world, you must admit that in other parts of space there -are other earths and various races of men and kinds of wild beasts.

Moreover in the sum of all there is no one thing which is begotten single in its kind and grows up single and sole of its kind; but a thing always belongs to some class and there are many other things in the same kind. First, in the case of living things, most noble Memmius, you will find that in this sort has been begotten the mountain-ranging race of wild beasts, in this sort the breed of men, in this sort too the mute shoals of scaly creatures and all bodies of fowls. Therefore on a like principle you must admit that earth, and sun, moon, sea, and all things else that are, are not single in their kind, but rather in number past numbering; since the deep-set boundary-mark of life just as much awaits these and they are just as much of a body that had birth, as any class of things which here on earth abounds in samples of its kind.

If you well apprehend and keep in mind these things, nature free at once and rid of her haughty lords is seen to do all things spontaneously of herself without the meddling of the gods. For I appeal to the holy breasts of the gods who in tranquil peace pass a calm time and an unruffled existence, who can rule the sum, who can hold in his hand with controlling force the strong reins, of the immeasurable deep?  Who can at once make all the different heavens to roll and warm with ethereal fires all the fruitful earths, or be present in all places at all times, to bring darkness with clouds and shake with noise the heaven’s serene expanse, to hurl lightnings and often throw down his own temples, and withdrawing into the deserts there to spend his rage in practicing his bolt which often passes the guilty by and strikes dead the innocent and unoffending?


And yet, a sight like this, Marvelous as it is, now draws no man To lift his gaze to heaven’s bright areas. We are a jaded lot. But even so Don’t be too shocked by something new, too scared To use your reasoning sense, to weigh and balance, So that if in the end a thing seems true, You welcome it with open arms; if false, You do your very best to strike it down.

The sum of space is infinite, reaching far Beyond the ramparts of the world; the mind Persists in questioning: what can be there? What is there so far off, toward which the urge Of the free spirit flies?There is no end, No limit to the cosmos, above, below, Around, about, stretching on every side. This I have proven, but the fact itself Cries loud in proclamation, nature’s deep Is luminous with proof. The universe Is infinitely wide; its vastness holds Innumerable seeds, beyond all count, Beyond all possibility of number, Flying along their everlasting ways. So it must be unthinkable that our sky And our round world are precious and unique While all those other motes of matter flit In idleness, achieve, accomplish nothing, Especially since this world of ours was made By natural process, as the atoms came Together, willy-nilly, quite by chance, Quite casually and quite intentionless Knocking against each other, massed, or spaced So as to colander others through, and cause Such combinations and conglomerates As form the origin of mighty things, Earth, sea and sky, and animals and men.

Face up to this, acknowledge it. I tell you Over and over – out beyond our world There are, elsewhere, other assemblages Of matter, making other worlds. Oh, ours Is not the only one in air’s embrace. With infinite matter available, infinite space, And infinite lack of any interference, Things certainly ought to happen. If we have More seeds, right now, than any man can count, More than all men of all time past could reckon, And if we have, in nature, the same power To cast them anywhere at all, as once They were cast here together, let’s admit – We really have to – there are other worlds, More than one race of men, and many kinds Of animal generations.

Furthermore, Adding up all the sum, you’ll never find One single thing completely different From all the rest, alone, apart, unique, Sole product, single specimen of its kind. Look at the animals: is this not true Of mountain-ranging species, and of men, Of the silent schools of fish, of flying things? Likewise you must admit that earth, sun, moon, Ocean, and all the rest, are not unique, But beyond reckoning or estimate. Their term of life is definitely set And so remains, their substance is of stuff No less ephemeral than what we see In the teeming multitudes of our own earth.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see That nature has no tyrants over her, But always acts of her own will; she has No part of any godhead whatsoever. By all that’s holy in the tranquil calm Where the gods pass serene eternal days I ask you – which of them is strong enough To rule the sum of things, to hold the reins Of absolute profundity, or move the skies To turn together? Who can warm the lands To fruitfulness with fire sent down from heaven? Who can be immanent in every time, In every place – to cloud the world in dark, To shake the quiet areas of sky With terrible sound? Who sends the lightning’s blast Even at his own temples? Who departs To wilderness, but as he goes, in wrath, Lets fly the bolts that pass the guilty by And murder undeserving innocents?


Yet think how no one now, wearied with satiety of seeing, deigns to gaze up at the shining quarters of the sky! Wherefore cease to spew out reason from your mind, struck with terror at mere newness, but rather with eager judgement weigh things, and, if you see them true, lift your hands and yield, or, if it is false, gird yourself to battle.

For our mind now seeks to reason, since the sum of space is boundless out beyond the walls of this world, what there is far out there, whither the spirit desires always to look forward, and whither the unfettered projection of our mind flies on unchecked. First of all, we find that in every direction everywhere, and on either side, above and below, through all the universe, there is no limit, as I have shown, and indeed the truth cries out for itself and the nature of the deep shines clear. Now in no way must we think it likely, since towards every side is infinite empty space, and seeds in unnumbered numbers in the deep universe fly about in many ways driven on in everlasting motion, that this one world and sky was brought to birth, but that beyond it all those bodies of matter do naught; above all, since this world was so made by nature, as the seeds of things themselves of their own accord, jostling from time to time, were driven together in many ways, rashly, idly, and in vain, and at last those united, which, suddenly cast together, might become ever and anon the beginnings of great things, of earth and sea and sky, and the race of living things. Wherefore, again and again, you must needs confess that there are here and there other gatherings of matter, such as is this, which the ether holds in its greedy grip.

Moreover, when there is much matter ready to hand, when space is there, and no thing, no cause delays, things must, we may be sure, be carried on and completed. As it is, if there is so great a store of seeds as the whole life of living things could not number, and if the same force and nature abides which could throw together the seeds of things, each into their place in like manner as they are thrown together here, it must needs be that you confess that there are other worlds in other regions, and diverse races of men and tribes of wild beasts.

This there is too that in the universe there is nothing single, nothing born unique and growing unique and alone, but it is always of some tribe, and there are many things in the same race. First of all turn your mind to living creatures; you will find that in this wise is begotten the race of wild beasts that haunts the mountains, in this wise the stock of men, in this wise again the dumb herds of scaly fishes, and all the bodies of flying fowls. Wherefore you must confess in the same way that sky and earth and sun, moon, sea, and all else that exists, are not unique, but rather of number numberless; inasmuch as the deep-fixed boundary-stone of life awaits these as surely, and they are just as much of a body that has birth, as every race which is here on earth, abounding in things after its kind.

And if you learn this surely, and cling to it, nature is seen, free at once, and quit of her proud rulers, doing all things of her own accord alone, without control of gods. For by the holy hearts of the gods, which in their tranquil peace pass placid years, and a life of calm, who can avail to rule the whole sum of the boundless, who to hold in his guiding hand the mighty reins of the deep, who to turn round all firmaments at once, and warm all fruitful lands with heavenly fires, or to be at all times present in all places, so as to make darkness with clouds, and shake the calm tracts of heaven with thunder, and then shoot thunderbolts, and often make havoc of his own temples, or moving away into deserts rage furiously there, plying the bolt, which often passes by the guilty and does to death the innocent and undeserving?



Additional Notes:


“The influence of convention on the development of language means that the existence of a transparent connection between ordinary language and preconceptions is not guaranteed in all cases. The case of “god” may be instructive in this regard: as Lucretius shows (5.1169–1203), while early humans did have access to an accurate conception of the nature of the gods (via their waking and dreaming perceptual experiences), the addition of false opinion to this accurate conception resulted in the widely-held false beliefs about gods that still do harm today (5.1196 –97; compare Ep. Men. 123, discussed above). The existence of widely-held false beliefs about the nature of gods means that inquirers can no longer rely on the ordinary meaning of the term “god”: prevalent cultural and philosophical confusion has muddied the issue, resulting in the failure of luminosity in this case. In such cases, wherein ordinary language does not allow secure and transparent access to the relevant preconception, the problem can be fixed by the use of a verbal account (an “outline”) enabling the inquirer to rule out all other conceptions.”

fromDefinition and Ordinary Language in Cicero by Barnaby Taylor.